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Exploring Anti-Christian Policies in the History of Japan – Part II: The Religious Policy of the Meiji Government

By Yutaka Morishima – Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan. 

Dr. Yutaka Morishima is a professor and university chaplain at Aoyama Gakuin University in Japan and a visiting scholar at OMSC in Princeton Theological Seminary (2023-2024). The subject of his Ph.D. dissertation was the Atonement Theology of P.T. Forsyth. He has served as a Protestant church pastor in Nagasaki, where the atomic bomb was dropped. His recent research is on the ideological history of human rights, especially the formation process of a unique human rights concept in Asia. In particular, the use of terms such as “human rights” and “peace state” in political documents is demonstrated to support the concept of Japan’s national polity, shedding new light on the formation of modern imperial ideology.

Editorial Introduction: For the next several weeks we will be publishing a series of essays by Dr. Yutaka Morishima who is an OMSC global partner this academic year. We wanted to feature this essay in four parts for its insight into the history of Japan and its relationship to Christianity.  This is the second part of the series.  You can read the part I here.  In these essays, Dr. Morishima explores the onset of Christianity in Japan, the impact it had on Japanese society, and the way certain policies shaped the contours of the faith. We hope that you enjoy this exploration of how Christianity unfolded in this nation’s history and its consequences to the present.Stephen Di Trolio, Managing Editor of The Occasional.


The last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the ikkun banmin

I should begin by explaining what was happening in the days leading up to the period (1868-1912). Foreign ships were spotted off the coast of Japan.[1] The policy had been to bar all foreigners and whose ports had previously been closed. This came at a time in which powerful Western nations were colonizing other Asian countries. In addition, there was the shocking news of the defeat of the great Qing dynasty during the Opium War in China. The political elites of Japan started to fear being colonized and thus felt the need to unify to stand against these new external pressures.

Japan, at the time, was not unified. , but in reality, there were 260 different feudal clans across the country.[2] These feudal clans functioned as nations. Each territory had its lord, and the people within the territory were called to pledge allegiance to their particular lord. Meaning that they did not fight for Japan; they fought for their clan. Despite the external pressures and dangerous conditions, the territories could not unite.

Because of this, the political elites devised an idea to become unified: (“One Ruler for All People”). This plan would mean that all serve one ruler. This ikkun banmin claimed the principle that all people would serve the Imperial Court. The first person to express this was Yasushi Aizawa of the Mito clan. Influenced by this, Shōin Yoshida of the Chōshū clan agreed with this political innovation and adhered to this same principle. In either case, it was through elites such as Shōin’s students that this unifying philosophy, ikkun banmin, was formed and implemented.

Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration in effect was a coup d’état. Dissatisfied with the Edo Shogunate, the Satsuma clan (Kagoshima) and the Chōshū clan (Yamaguchi) planned a capture governmental power. However, to do this, they needed to validate their stance as a coupist. Kuge (court noble) named Tomomi Iwakura would also join forces with them. During this time, Kuge was any ranking official who served in the emperor’s court. The Imperial Court had reigned in the past with strength and authority. However, the warrior class (samurai) who had served as bodyguards gained power and had been formally entrusted with administrative power under the authorization of the Imperial Court (sei-i taishōgun).

Nevertheless, the Imperial Court was, in reality, merely a decoration, and the samurai held power. The emperor in this case was a formal measure but did not have actual power. In Japan, we call this “shogunate politics.”  The people who led the Meiji Restoration were court nobles and samurai from the Choshu and Satsuma clans. They wanted to overthrow the Tokugawa regime. These parties had advocated for the return of the Tokugawa government to the Emperor (Mikado), this decision resulted in the formal restoration of the monarchy.

The Meiji government rushed to enact a host of policies to collapse the old regime of the Shogunate. They did not want their new regime to be thwarted and for this reason, needed to destroy the old structures. One aspect of the old structure was that of a class system. However, the system was taken apart primarily because there would then be a concentration of resources and power among the samurai which could encourage rebellion. The philosophy of ikkun banmin was adopted instead. All people were to serve one lord equally. In other words, this unifying philosophy of ikkun banmin was tied to the destruction of the class system, hence it began to spread as a philosophy for equality called . A new era was inaugurated and ordinary people rejoiced over this policy.

To secure and maintain the new Meiji regime, the emperor’s influence needed to penetrate the lives of the ordinary people. This would mean that the Meiji government would begin to implement a new series of religious policies. While In European monarchies the ruler was seen as divinely appointed and holding “divine right”, in the case of the Japanese system the emperor was not only divinely appointed but also considered a divine being. Japan’s mythology has passed down the notion of the divinity of the Emperor. In this polytheistic religion, the emperor is said to be descended from the supreme God, Amaterasu Mikami, and installed to reign over the land. The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki are two of the oldest written books that explain the origins of Japan. The emperor was considered a godly being who acted as a priest to pray to the gods for harvest. [3]

However, because the Imperial Court was contained solely in Kyoto during the Edo period, the existence of the emperor was unknown to the ordinary people. The Meiji government reinforced the policy of the emperor as a godly being, so they needed to spread their religious influence to Japan. One way they did this was through the use of shrines. The Japanese people worshiped many things as gods, yet they would move to give the emperor the authority to decide which gods should deserve to be worshipped. Many private shrines were destroyed, and all the gods in the shrines were connected to the god of the imperial household (Amaterasu Omikami). Each household was to set up a kamidana (family altar) in their home and obligated to worship it daily. The original plan was for those failing to do so would be charged a fine. Although no penalties were imposed, the emperor’s divinity was imprinted on the people’s lives of people by becoming a daily habit. Even now, homes, Police stations, and JR train stations have a kamidana. The origin of this is due to the religious policy crafted by the Meiji government.

Meiji government in dilemma

The political structure of the Meiji government is a unity of politics and religion, namely a theocracy. Both politics and religion are conducted through the religious authority of the emperor. Even though the actual power was in the hands of the people who carried out the Meiji restoration (the Satsuma and Chōshu clans), formally, the religious leader conducted politics. However, they faced a situation in which they were forced to change this political structure with the arrival of foreigners from Europe. There was an incident called the “Urakami Fourth Collapse.” In 1865, Christians who had been hiding their faith more than 200 years were discovered and in 1869, the Meiji government suppressed them. In 1870, the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany protested against this, leading to a diplomatic incident. These countries sought religious freedom. Furthermore, for three years starting in 1871, missions to Europe and the United States to revise treaties and modernize the country were criticized in each country and called for the separation of politics and religion and the introduction of religious freedom. These two conditions were the touchstone of a modern nation, and any country that did not have this separation established was not seen as a developed nation and, therefore, could not be invited to negotiate as an equal party.

Photo by Nicki Eliza Schinow on Unsplash

However, for the Meiji government, this separation of politics, religion, and the freedom of religion directly would impact its governmental power. The legitimacy of their politics in  Japan was born from the understanding that the emperor, was a divine being. Separating politics and religion meant that the emperor, as a divine being, could no longer govern the political sphere. Moreover, opening the possibility for other religions such as Christianity, which was considered evil would cause a new host of problems. By making other religions to be able to be practiced and thus making them equal to Shintoism, would end up reducing the emperor’s absolute authority. Despite this, the Meiji government had no choice but to correct Japan’s national structure for the sake of diplomacy.

So, they came up with the idea of a ‘Japanese style of separation of politics and religion, in effect making shrines connected to emperor worship into a culture rather than a religion. We call this “Jinjahishukyoron” (the theory that Shinto is not a religion) and “state Shinto.” Shintoism would not be considered a religion in this new structure, so the emperor could continue to be involved in politics without violating the separation of politics and religion. The government defined shrines as “customs” that performed national rituals and placed them above religion. Therefore, Shintoism was higher than religion and not equal to Christianity. Logically and politically, it was superior to Christianity, and the absoluteness of the Emperor and the supremacy of Shintoism would not be violated, so they allowed the Christian faith to enter the country. In other words, they succeeded in keeping the emperor’s priesthood while fulfilling the requirement of separation of politics and religion and the policy of religious freedom.

While most Japanese nowadays claim to be atheists, most still visit the shrine for hatsumode (first of the year visit to the shrine). They go and pray at the shrine with ceremonies such as shichi-go-san (a traditional Japanese event to celebrate children’s growth) to purify themselves from evil. When building houses, they organize jichinsai, a ceremony to sanctify the ground, and receive prayer from the kannushi (Shinto priest). Most Japanese do not view these as religious deeds, but as cultural duties. They say, “It’s not religion, it’s Japanese culture.” Most people need to realize that this is a system integrated by the religious policy of the Meiji government.



[1] Meiji is a Japanese-era name. A Japanese era name is a title used for numbering years in the Japanese calendar system. From the Meiji period onwards, it became the rule to change era names only when a new emperor acceded to the throne.

[2] The political system of the Edo period is reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire. In a manner akin to the Holy Roman Emperor overseeing individual territories governed by local lords, the Edo period had regional domains ruled by daimyos, yet the overall authority rested with the shogun. Similar to the Holy Roman Emperor being crowned by the Pope, the appointment of the shogun was a system approved by the Emperor, known as the Mikado. Hence, during this era, each domain functioned like a separate state with its respective lord, resembling a collection of the United States.

[3] Buddhism is a religion that originated in India and was introduced to Japan through China. Japan’s religion is Shinto. Historically, Shinto and Buddhism were syncretized. However, the Meiji government separated Shinto and Buddhism and purified Shinto.


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